January 2013 Shark Bytes
Posted on Thursday, 31 January 2013
I had to stop and check myself when writing the title to this e-letter… is it really 2013 already?
Well, this year certainly started with a bang and we have already experienced some pretty phenomenal shark encounters which I am looking forward to sharing with you all, particularly with Blue sharks and Ragged-tooth sharks.
Blue Sharks Feeding on Anchovy Baitball
December and January are normally a great time for our Pelagic Shark trips that take place off Cape Point. The warm Agulhas Current is normally very close to Cape Point so not having to travel 20 to 30 miles from Cape Point always makes the day easier and the water temperature is normally warmer. This often means that we can come across interesting species and situations; it’s like going on a marine adventure.
On this particular day in early January we cruised to Cape Point in beautiful sea conditions and upon arrival we found that The Point was teeming with life. The surface of the ocean was alive with bait fish and sea birds such as Corey’s and Sooty shearwaters, Sabine’s gulls and Cape Gannets were working the fish all around us. We even spotted the occasional longfin and skipjack tuna feeding on the surface too.
In the distance Chris spotted the birds working in a very small and focused area so we raced on to find out what was happening. As we were approaching we saw a Minke whale make two big lunges through the bait ball. Just like that the action was abruptly ended as the whale demolished the entire bait ball.
It was exciting even from a distance but before we could calm down Chris picked up on another very concentrated area of birds working. Again we raced over but this time there was no feeding minke whale! On closer inspection we could detect silver flashes and we assumed it was tuna working the anchovy bait ball. This was a unique situation in terms of it is not very often that we come across slow moving bait balls in great diving conditions. The water was clear blue, 15 to 20 meters visibility, 21C and due to low winds the ocean conditions were perfect for diving. The bait ball was just below the surface which meant that it was also easy to snorkel in this situation.
Chris decided on a quick inspection and quickly put his wetsuit on and dived in … this was shortly followed by very exciting and enthusiastic snorkel screaming ... I knew then it was something very different…
Chris had discovered that in fact the silver flashes were not tuna but about 20 blue sharks feeding on the bait ball. In 15 years of working off Cape Point this is the first time we have come across this amazing situation, and we immediately recognised it as a great moment we were about to share with our guests.
You can never predict how long a bait ball can last for so we initially dived all the guest, 3 at a time, for a short period. This was to make sure that everyone got to experience the situation.
I was anxiously waiting for all the guests to dive so that I might have an opportunity to dive as well. When I finally got in I was extremely surprised at the sight in front of me.
It was so amazing it did not seem real. By the time I got in there were 30 to 40 blue sharks, with probably 8 to 10 sharks coming into the ball at a time and gulping mouthfuls of anchovy. Even though they were not using a lot of speed to attack the ball they would be successful each time they attacked it. In fact sometimes they would be catching 4 to 6 fish at a time. Whilst these 8 to 10 sharks would be feeding all the other blue sharks would be circling below the bait ball, almost like they were just waiting for their turn.
It doesn’t seem fair to describe the scene as unbelievable ... I need a better word to help you appreciate what I was seeing! The sight before me was just mind blowing and I also knew how rare this opportunity was. Actually I felt like I was living a Blue Planet moment, which in fact, I was!
It was mesmerizing. The blue sharks would slowly swim into the bait ball and then emerge on the opposite side with their catch, at the same time the ball would move and bend as the sharks made their entrances, and then as if a curtain was opening, the fish would part as the shark swam out.
The blue sharks were larger than the average size that we see, between 1.5 and 2 meters in length. At no time did I feel threatened by the sharks in any way, they simply ignored us and were only focused on the bait ball. Some would curiously approach us but there was seldom a situation where we needed to push them away. This amazed me that they could be so non-threatening in a natural feeding situation, just showing again how most times sharks are just interested in getting on with what they are supposed to do. There definitely was no feeding frenzy kind of activity, it actually appeared as if it was all very controlled.
What was also of interest was that we had 2 mako sharks seen by the divers over the 3 hour dive period. One mako was tiny (less than 1 meter) and the other was about 2 meters. Neither shark showed any interest or intent to feed on the bait ball. This surprised us as we had always presumed that smaller makos would also feed on anchovies and sardines. I hope that at some point we have another opportunity like this so that we can watch for this situation again.
The bait ball continued to be held together by the sharks for 3 hours so all of us, crew and guests, got to have numerous amazing dives in this unique situation. Nature always talks to you so always have your eyes and ears open; you never know what you will come across when you read the signs.
I am not aware of any other images of blue sharks feeding on a fish bait ball so I am thrilled to have had this amazing opportunity, I know already that this will be one of our highlights for 2013, and yes, this experience also gets us extremely excited for The Sardine Run in June later this year!
Other Pelagic Shark Trips
We have struggled somewhat with windy conditions off Cape Point so it has been difficult to do a lot more trips. But on the 4 other occasions that we ventured offshore, all trips were fantastic. There was a very short waiting time for the first shark to arrive and on most trips we were seeing between 15 and 30 blue sharks, so the cage diving encounters have been superb.
We have seen Mako sharks on every trip but the blue sharks funny enough have created some problems. With so many blue sharks present the mako sharks don’t seem confident to approach the bait. We think it is because the blues crowd the bait and don’t allow the mako sharks a chance to come in. As such the makos loose interest and can depart pretty quickly.
We also had one very big Bronze whaler shark of about 2.8 meters in length come up to the boat. It was really exciting but despite our best efforts to get it to come in, just like the mako sharks, the blue shark numbers kept this shark away from us. However, it was still a great highlight to watch this shark from the boat.
As I said before, this time of the year always provides really exciting situations and different sightings!
We still have a couple of months left for the Pelagic Trips so let us know if you are interested.